Described as a “dialogical encounter,”1 a “conversational narrative”2 and a “multivocal art”3 oral history is clearly an exchange between individuals. The clear distinction in roles between the listener (or interviewer) and teller (narrator) makes for a particular kind of interpersonal experience that allows its participants to both hear and speak with a depth, care and intention largely absent from most daily interactions. In this sense, the type of narration that occurs in an oral history interview is fundamentally different from other forms of storytelling – and imbues it with an added power as a resource for social change. While movement actors can develop and share personal, evocative, and aural stories through plenty of means (think: digital storytelling), oral history holds a special capacity for relationship building in the creative and often intimate exchange of a face-to-face interview.
A plethora of “intergenerational” oral history projects intimates at oral history’s efficacy in fostering relationships that endure beyond the interview setting.4 In movement building, relationships sustain activity, increase commitment, and form the basis of trust and action that underlie individuals’ willingness to risk their personal security and safety for the sake of the movement.5 While much of the relationship building within social movements happens naturally in the course of collective action and planning, a more formal and intentional use of interviewing can augment or accelerate this process. Imaginative pairings of interviewers and narrators can be marshaled by organizers to build trust within an affinity group, solidarity among participants of sister movements, and understanding between allies and those directly affected by an injustice. Groundswell participant Rachel Falcone shared an example of this from an oral history project she facilitated bringing together African Americans and members of the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia’s Chinatown:
- Clark, “Oral History Art and Praxis,” 94. ↩
- Grele, Envelopes of Sound, 135. ↩
- Portelli, “There’s Gonna Always Be a Line: History-Telling as a Multivocal Art,” 24–25. ↩
- One example is the “Stories Between Us” oral history project facilitated by Lena Richardson at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists. Young people interviewed congregational elders about their life histories and involvement in the congregation. From the project website (www.storiesbetweenus.com): “In focusing on drawing young people interested in stories and linking them to elders in the context of storytelling and the sharing of wisdom and life history, the possibilities of new configurations of relationship develop.” ↩
- Many researchers have studied the significance of personal relationships and networks in mobilization processes and social movements. Suzanne Staggenborg surveys these findings and identifies key studies in chapter 3 of Social Movements (see especially pages 30-34). See also: Diani and McAdam, Social Movements and Networks.